Fresh from their swearing-in ceremonies last week, members of the 112th Congress face a full plate of challenges in the months ahead, including a vote on whether to repeal health care reform (postponed right now in light of the Arizona shootings), as well as a host of contentious budget issues. To learn where they stand on critical fiscal matters, The Fiscal Times asked six new House members, three from each party, about their priorities. They are: David Cicilline, D-R.I., a state representative and mayor of Providence; Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, a state senate president; Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., a state representative; Hansen Clarke, D-Mich., a state senator and representative; Mike Kelly, R-Pa., a businessman and Butler city councilman; and Lou Barletta, R-Pa., a businessman and mayor of Hazelton.
One hopeful note: There was agreement on some issues, and a desire to work together. What follows are excerpts from the interviews – and a preview of what’s ahead.
Digging Out of the Deficit Hole
Mike Kelly, R-Pa.: I look at everything through a business model. We have lived way beyond our means, year after year. We’ve got to get our budget fixed now. We don’t have the luxury of kicking this thing farther into the future. Certainly my children and my grandchildren don’t deserve that. Nobody does. Getting spending under control — that is the whole theme of this Congress.
Cicilline, D-R.I.: We have to look at every government program and be sure that we keep the ones that are working well and are good investments. The ones that are not working well – we don’t.
Hanabusa, D-Hawaii: To me, cutting willy-nilly is not the answer. You could talk about cutting the budget, cutting services and everything else, but the bottom line is we’ve got to define what government needs to do. It needs to protect Social Security and Medicare, and help those who are unemployed through no fault of their own.
Bill Huizenga, R-Mich.: We’ve got to deal with the debt ceiling and with health care. In general, we have to tackle the economic situation and create an atmosphere that will allow for private-sector growth. That is the most important thing we have to do.
Clarke, D-Mich.: I don’t compromise on my values of getting more people back to work and reducing the national debt and deficit — but there are many ways to feed those objectives. Most important, I’m not here to make the Republicans wrong. I want to let them know, ‘Hey, I’m a guy you can work with.’
Barletta, R-Pa.: You need to go line item by line item and department by department. There is no question we need to make large cuts because of our debt.
The Choice: Raise the Debt Ceiling or Default on our Loans
Hanabusa, D-Hawaii: The only way to raise it is if there are automatic triggers that say, ‘If you do this, then this or that has to happen.’ It’s got to give people confidence that we’re not simply going to spend money or print money. There must be a plan.
Huizenga, R-Mich.: I am not prepared to vote for an increase in the debt ceiling right now without a plan. If we’re just going to increase the limit and not change our spending habits, that is a catastrophe. How we got here is a catastrophe. We have to turn it around.
Kelly, R-Pa.: We can’t keep raising the debt ceiling. It’s irresponsible unless there is real reform. We’ve gone beyond our credit limit and told our lender, ‘I can’t pay you back, but I still want to spend a lot of money.’ If we just keep doing that, we’ll never attack the real problem.
Barletta, R-Pa.: The American people don’t want us to spend any more money. However, I also understand the obligation the country has to its lenders. We can’t default on our notes. If I vote for increasing the debt ceiling, there would have to be guarantees about cuts and caps on spending, to make sure that this never happens again.
Actions vs. Words — What Will They Do?
Cicilline, D-R.I.: We have to look at the subsidies we give to big oil and gas companies, as well as our spending on conflicts around the world. We’ve spent over $400 billion in Afghanistan. We must be sure we’re spending money in the right way.
Hanabusa, D-Hawaii: We’ve got to look at the cost of the Iraq War, of tax breaks. People need a reality check.
Clarke, D-Mich.: The money we spend on Social Security, health care and defense is not sustainable. What’s worse is all the money we blow by paying interest on the debt. For long-term financial stability and for national security, I don’t like the fact that we as taxpayers owe all this money to China or the oil-producing countries or to Japan — that causes me concern.
Kelly, R-Pa.: Once we get spending under control, we should look at how we create jobs. We do that by allowing people to keep what they have. When they have money, they’ll reinvest.
Barletta, R-Pa.: You can’t spend what you don’t have. We shouldn’t do anything different in Washington than what you and I do in our own private lives.
Jobs — A Top Priority
Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii: Create jobs and start building public confidence, so that people feel there really is an economic upturn. Without jobs, we’re continually going to be on a roller coaster in terms of how [members of] the public feel about their future and how they view those of us they elected.
David Cicilline, D-R.I.: Get the people of Rhode Island and people across the country back to work, and get our economy back on track. We need to invest in rebuilding our infrastructure. It’s a necessity. It will put people back to work quickly and also lay the foundation for rebuilding our economy in the 21st century.
Hansen Clarke, D-Mich.: I’ve already started trying to get Detroiters back to work. I’m trying to target training for the jobs that are in demand. I’m looking to expand schools so we can provide recreation for our youth and not rely on city-owned recreation centers. This will reduce costs and keep young people off the streets.
The Health Care Bill — Repeal, Redo or Retain
Lou Barletta, R-Pa.: Repeal it. That’s one of the first things on my agenda. We also need to cut spending and make government more efficient, less costly to taxpayers.
Cicilline, D-R.I.: I support health care reform. It’s a work in progress, so I expect that we’ll go back and fix things that are wrong. Compromise is part of our work as legislators. I think we all have to work together and do what’s right for Americans, not what’s right for Democrats or what’s right for Republicans.
Hanabusa, D-Hawaii: Repeal is not the answer. For too long we’ve ignored the need for primary care physicians and for preventive medicine. Those are true reducers of health care costs. For people who want health care in America, we should provide it. That’s what government does.
Kelly, R-Pa.: Absolutely, I will vote for repeal.
Huizenga, R-Mich.: Voting for repeal is a symbolic and substantive move the Republicans need to make. I have no doubt that people back in my district will poke me and say, ‘You guys said you were going to [repeal it].’ I think it will pass in the House, maybe even with a veto-proof number. But what’s the realistic chance of its passage in the Senate? Virtually none. If it lands on Obama’s desk, is he really going to sign it? Highly unlikely.
Clarke, D-Mich.: I support the health reform bill, but I may want to modify certain provisions, such as the independent payment board. Friends my age – 50 – have diabetes and can’t get insurance to cover their high medical bills, so they’re on the verge of losing their homes. They need this coverage. I don’t want people to have to pay huge bills and go bankrupt or lose their homes because they can’t pay.